Mariners sign Chone Figgins

Chone Figgins and the Seattle Mariners have agreed to a contract bringing the former Angel to town. This was a story to watch all day Friday as the confirmations rolled in.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo Day

Figgins, turning 32 in late January, should be a valuable player for the next two years at a minimum. Figgins had an incredible year in 2009, walking 101 times for a .298/.395/.393 line. He stole 42 bags and figures to be an impact leadoff/No. 2 hitter for the Mariners. At a $9 million salary, Figgins will provide more bang for the buck than inferior infielders named Polanco and Scutaro.

What makes this deal all the more palatable is Figgins’ flexibility. He’s not stuck at third the way Adrian Beltre was. Figgins can play second or left field without compromising defense. The Mariners could even cheat with him in center on occasion. He gives the Mariners flexibility in future decisions. If Jose Lopez is traded, they don’t have to rush out and get a second baseman if the best option is a third baseman. Figgins simply moves to the keystone.

Color me concerned about the longevity of the contract, though. Figgins exhibited tremendous plate discipline in 2009, well above his career norms. However, Figgins has exhibited an increased understanding of the strike zone the longer he plays the game — which makes me wonder at what point that becomes unsustainable. Comparing Figgins to Scutaro, who always held an understanding of the strike zone, helps reinforce this point.

Scutaro’s walk percentage since 2004: 3.4, 8.6, 12.0, 9.4, 9.9.
Figgins within the same parameters: 7.8, 9.1, 9.7, 10.3, 12.0, 14.1.

It seems rather unsustainable for Figgins to maintain that 14.1 percent walk rate. His career walk rate of 10.3 percent is a more realistic expectation. Eyeballing his career slash stats of .291/.363/.388 makes me of the opinion that it’s a logical line to expect from Figgins in the coming years. Couple that with over 40 stolen bases and terrific defense at third base, and you’ve got yourself a valuable player.

How valuable will he be in the final year of his contract, though? He’ll be 36 at the end of the contract. While he can still flat out run right now, can he run in four years? A lot of Figgins’ value is tied up in his speed. His batting average and defense are dependent on quickness and speed, which are two different beasts.

For example, Placido Polanco has stolen 71 bases in 12 seasons. Figgins has stolen 76 the last two seasons combined. Polanco is not fast. What he is is quick and part of the concern of shifting him to third base is that the Phillies will rely on Polanco’s ability to adapt to a position all about quickness. Given Polanco is thought to be declining in quickness, perhaps he wasn’t Philadelphia’s best choice. (In fact, given the parameters of this deal, how did Philly possibly think Polanco was a better option?)

So, back to Figgins. Over the next four years, simply through the aging process, he will lose a step here and there. Fortunately, his plate discipline will help arrest the decline, but how is this deal viewed in 2014? Could he lose a step as quick as Luis Castillo — who is only one year older?

I compare the two because Castillo has a similar walk rate over his career: 10.8 percent. I don’t believe that Figgins is a risk for as severe a decline as Castillo defensively, but remember this: Castillo was once an excellent defender, just like Figgins.

All told, the salary plus Figgins’ overall game make this a good signing. If we knew that Figgins could play an average shortstop, he’s the better solution than Marco Scutaro. But he’s not the answer. And for that, the Mariners will need to keep sifting through their options.

With a current $70 million roster projected, the Seattle Mariners have a theorized $30-40 million to spend on the major league roster this season. It could even be higher, given that last year’s team checked in with a $117 million payroll, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. While I very much doubt that all those millions will be spent on the major league team (you have the amateur draft, international free agency and other allocations to figure into the sum), enough will be spent that this probably isn’t Seattle’s one and only big ticket signing.

As logical as the Figgins signing is, it doesn’t address Seattle’s biggest problem to date: power.

Take a look at how Seattle’s lineup currently looks:

C ?
1B ?
2B Lopez
SS Wilson
3B Figgins
LF Saunders
CF Gutierrez
RF Ichiro
DH ?

(Seattle already has internal options for catcher, first and designated hitters. However, if the team opens with those options in place of the question marks, you can write them out of the playoff hunt.)

There is a complete lack of power, and past Ichiro and Figgins, a lack of offensive upside. Sure, there are contributors: Lopez and Gutierrez, for instance, are fine complementary players. I don’t see anyone that passes the smell test to hit third, fourth or even fifth, though.

If the Mariners hope to contend in 2010, they can’t do so with an offense solely backed on defense. It certainly makes them a better than .500 team, but if they truly have playoff aspirations, Figgins is only the first domino to fall. Not the last.

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